The disadvantages of an elite education

I’ve been reading an excellent essay in the American Scholar, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, by William Deresiewicz. Go there and read it. Despite the implied Obama critique, I think he has hit several nails on their heads.

Many of the people whom I have met who have benefited from an education at an elite school are bright but uninteresting. And they seem to believe that they are brighter and more accomplished than they actually manage to be. As long as I am painting with a stereotypical brush, I’ll note that in my experience, this is particularly true of graduates of Harvard and Yale, and least true of graduates of Princeton and Cornell. The funny thing is that these expectations are often born out.

I didn’t really think much about the Ivy League until I came to Quinnipiac. I attended state schools, and my impression is that there is a lot in common in terms of coursework between a large public school like the University of Indiana, and a large private, like Harvard. But the attitudes that Quinnipiac students hold toward Yalies, and the reverse, has brought into sharp focus the cultural capital held by Yale.

Every couple years, Yale’s student paper publishes a sort of “safari” piece on Quinnipiac students that always manages to set a colonial tone. (The most recent is awed by the fact that in their native habitat, Quinnipiac students seem to spend–gasp!–a great deal of time studying.) I have the feeling that for most Yale students, the experience of Quinnipiac students is utterly beyond their grasp. The gap here is not between the working class and the elite. Quinnipiac students generally come from “new money,” it seems to me: their parents are almost prototypical members of the bourgeoisie, sons and daughters of successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, and stockbrokers. That Yalies consider Quinnipiac students to be heavy partiers suggests they have never visited ASU or SDSU, but there is definitely a difference in what is considered an expected workload. Some of our best students rival the abilities of some of their best students, but our average student seems unsure of why he is in college, and unsure of what he wants to do afterward. (This is new for me: ambition seems more common both among children of the working poor in Buffalo and in a different way, among children of the aristocracy.) I chafe a bit at our emphasis of professional skills, but it seems likely that Yale graduates will be working with Quinnipiac graduates, and our students will probably teaching their students the nuts and bolts of professional practice. That Yale and Quinnipiac students can find so little common ground is an indictment of both institutions.

I think the article overplays this as endemic to the Ivy League. Students at almost every university seem to feel entitled to a high-paying job upon graduation, regardless of what they actually accomplish in school, and grade inflation in our own program rivals Yale’s. But he may be right that the graduate of an Ivy League school has been told so often that he is a member of the elite that he believes this as part of his being. Unfortunately, at least until mellowed a bit after graduation, this makes many students at Ivy League schools fairly insufferable to talk to.

Of course, there are exceptions. Many of my friends are survivors of Ivy League programs, and I don’t hold it against them in the least. Some of them even deign to read my blog ;). But unfortunately, since the Ivies tend to set the cadence for “aspirant” institutions, the problems outlined in this article seem to trickle down. When this is compounded with the fact that our political leaders are disproportionately products of these schools, it seems clear that an adjustment is needed.

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  1. Posted 7/2/2008 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    in these days if your too good, they see u as a threat, if your not so good they will not care about you…

  2. Posted 7/9/2008 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Interesting article.

    Interesting to me because the Ivy attitude and treatment was precisely the kind of treatment that I received at SUNY Potsdam back in my undergrad days there. Orientation week began with a packed seminar room for all entering freshmen where Dean DelGiudice, a PhD in Poly Sci and tenure holder, informed us quite sternly over a presentation on transparencies (the days before PowerPoint) that college was NOT meant to give us a job, college was meant to teach us how to think. If we wanted a job out of college, we were all in the wrong place and should quit now and go to trade school.

    13 years later, going back to school at QU for the Masters in ICM, I was absolutely stunned at how college had changed. The students all looked the same. Exactly the same. I later attributed it to the lack of any sort of Arts program in QU… we’ve got ourselves a Law School on campus, but no Theater department, Music department, or Art department of note.

    I think that the problems of entitlement are more generational than the article mentions might be better assigned to generational attitudes… the Millennials are mostly the children of the Boomers, and the Baby Boom never really came to grips with concepts of needing discipline themselves, let alone for their children. The attitude of entitlement seems to be endemic to all millennials, not just those in Ivy League schools… at least as far as my own limited exposure to them has confirmed. I’ve watched a revolving door of interns and new hires who come in, can’t deal with a standard work week and flake out, walking off the job because they “can’t handle the stress” of showing up on a schedule all the time. Anecdotes from friends in other non-corporate professions reveals similar ‘entry problems’, like temper tantrums at being told that flip-flops are not allowed, for example.

    Interestingly enough, I saw my own fears of failure and my own need to ‘normalize’ addressed in the article as well. The notes about medicating for normalcy hit home for me. But then, I’ve already been wrestling with thoughts about the future and how to pay off the investment in the Master’s I’m almost done making without ‘wasting’ the degree. Definitely a good read. I think there are a number of things in it which have broader causes and implications, though. But still good. Topical. Relevant.

    Give me a decent public University any day. At least in public universities, you don’t have to worry about the “voluntary suspension of the Bill of Rights” nonsense. QU’s student activist club for Gay and Lesbian supporters have tales from student organizers who lost their financial aid because of their leadership in an “undesirable” club and daring to speak out and question the president of the college.

  3. alex
    Posted 7/9/2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    To be fair, a lot of that is just QU. The speech you got at Potsdam we were still giving at UW, SUNY Buffalo, etc. There is a significant divide between universities who see training for employment as pretty high up there (QU does) and those who consider it fairly irrelevant (most research universities and liberal arts colleges). With the exception of certain programs (business, medicine, social work, etc.), of course.

    I’m not sure which is better. It is a huge change to go from an academic grad program to a professional grad program. Having now experienced both, I think I have a better understanding of how there is a place for both. But woe unto the student who ends up thinking they are one when they are in another. I wish I could have shipped some of my former students at Buffalo off to QU–they would have been much happier.

    But yes, at times QU feels a lot less like a university campus than many I’ve been on…

  4. Yale student
    Posted 7/12/2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Yale students don’t consider Quinnipiac students weird party animals because they come from new money or go to a different type of school. They consider Quinnipiac students weird party animals because every Saturday, buses drop hundreds of Quinnipiac students off on the Yale campus, where they get wasted and wander around wearing very little clothing.

    • alex
      Posted 7/12/2012 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

      The willingness to paint all students at QU based on what you seem to think are “hundreds” of students arriving on the drunk bus says more about your observational abilities than it does about QU students. Again, I suspect that students at any university would appear more licentious and hard partying when compared to the average Yale undergrad. I think, however, that the anonymity of your comment means you recognize how shallow it is.

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  1. […] 11, 2008 · No Comments I have to laugh. I just have to laugh. In the Disadvantages of an Elite Education post and comments on Alex Halavais’ blog, I mentioned that several of the new generation of […]

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